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Complete Guide to Processing Waterfowl from Field to Freezer

Are you getting the most yield and flavor out of your birds at the end of the day?

Complete Guide to Processing Waterfowl from Field to Freezer

This step-by-step guide will cover all the important things that need to happen once the birds are folded and brought to hand. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Preservation While Hunting

This is more of a factor to consider during early season when birds are at risk of spoiling in warm temperatures. The higher the outdoor temps are above 40 degrees, the greater the chance meat can spoil with prolonged exposure. If you’re dressed in thin layers and dropping ducks, it might be worth dressing them on the spot and keeping them in a cooler. A gut-shot bird also requires immediate attention as it will spoil quicker, so if you dropped one at close range, that bird may require a quick exam and smell test.

You want to keep your waterfowl dry, so it helps to include in the cooler some sort of Styrofoam board or barrier between the birds and the ice (and let the cooler drain so it’s just ice at the bottom). If you have a Yeti cooler or something similar that’s been conditioned to stay cold, perhaps you don’t need ice, but logic remains: keep the birds cool and dry.

As the season progress, this becomes less of an issue as temps drop below freezing. Nevertheless, keep in mind those ducks and geese are also often outfitted with a denser layer of fat in addition to their down feathers that insulate their body heat. For example, if you’re hunting an unseasonably warm day in the second half of the flyway, your fattier birds may require some sooner-than-later attention, especially if you’re bagging Canada geese, as larger birds maintain heat longer compared to smaller ducks.

complete guide to processing waterfowl field to freezer
Ensuring your fowl is fit for table fare starts while you are still on the hunt. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

But overall, for us practical hunters who’d rather not tote multiple coolers to the blind in addition to dozens of decoys, remember the above advice and also make a point to keep your birds out of the sun. In 60 degree or below weather, I’d contend waterfowl are safe in a cool, shaded area for upwards of three to four hours. Take a break at lunch to bring them home and add them to a fridge or cooler.

When in doubt, trust your nose. That tool has undergone a millennia of evolution to prevent you from food poisoning. If your nose smells something off after dressing and cleaning a bird, don’t risk it. You can try cutting away that portion and smelling again but bottom line is anything that smells funky deserves trashing. If you notice gangrene in form of blackish-green color on portions of meat, you can indeed work to trim away and use your nose again to test the remainder of meat. 

Aging Waterfowl

Aging any game allows moisture to evaporate from the meat, thus concentrating flavor, while naturally occurring enzymes denature and tenderize the meat. Generally speaking, the older the game, the longer it should age. This same logic applies to everything from ducks to deer. In the case of waterfowl, anyone who has ever reported a band understands these birds can sometimes grow pretty old. Those Canada geese you are stacking could easily be seven or eight years old or older. (For perspective, the domestic chickens you buy at the grocery store are slaughtered at age of 7 to 9 weeks.) That waterfowl meat is tough and could benefit from a bit of aging.

For all the safety reasons mentioned above in how to preserve your birds, proper temperatures are key for aging birds. For the most part, I don’t hang birds larger than mallards, and I hang them unplucked and undressed whenever possible, as I believe innards benefit the aging process. With temperatures hovering around 40, without going above 50, I may hang ducks as large as mallards for two to three days in my garage.

But a Canada goose (or any waterfowl larger than a mallard) has all that meat and down feathers keeping it warm even if temps are low. Also, the fat on waterfowl, compared to leaner upland birds for example, means that fat can oxidize and turn meat rancid as a result. Luckily, there is a second option, other than hanging, for aging your waterfowl.

You can indeed dress and/or butcher your ducks and geese and age in your fridge. This is often my go-to method in Kansas where temperatures, regardless of season, are so variable. I will pluck, dress, and either butcher or add whole to my fridge and allow to age for 2-3 days. It helps to add your bird meat to a grate of some sort to allow for ample airflow around all sides on the meat while aging in your fridge.


Give a Pluck

Fact: Skin is the bacon of the waterfowl world. When rendered, it’s liquid gold. When waterfowl cooks in its own fat, the final product is something incredible. Rendered duck fat is the stuff they sell in boutique grocery stores for $15 or more a jar. It’s worth saving, if you have the time.

You can pluck the whole bird or just the breasts—it’s up to you. Yes, a whole bird takes some time, but ripping off feathers from the breasts only takes a few minutes. Even a child can help do it, as waterfowl skin is tough and generally won’t rip while aggressively plucking (unless skin is already torn from dog or shot). If I am processing a pile of ducks and geese, I may pluck a couple whole, then pluck breasts of others and after butchering, I may have a few more feathers to pluck from the breasts.

complete guide to processing waterfowl field to freezer
Pluck your birds to cook them with the skin on. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Next, I take a lighter to singe off small, thin remaining feathers (or even what look like hairs on Canada geese, for example). Bass anglers have their bass thumb; we hunters who #GiveAPluck have our Bic thumb. 

Make sure to use your other, non-burnt thumb to scrape off black bits. Later, before the next step of brining, you can rinse off these singed bits of waterfowl and use a bristle brush of some sort to lightly scrub off any remaining burnt black fuzz. (Don’t use dish soap or any brush that’s had dish soap on it.)

complete guide to processing waterfowl field to freezer
Use a lighter to burn off any remaining feathers. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

Saving Giblets

Yes, you can indeed save the livers, hearts, and gizzards from all your waterfowl. Hearts are great when cooked medium-rare, while livers serve as great dog treats when smoked or could even be made into pâte. A lot of folks like to fry gizzards, so those make for great appetizers. For tips on cleaning gizzards, check out this video with Hank Shaw.

Rendering Waterfowl Fat into Duck/Goose Butter

If you end up plucking any portion of your birds and want to render those bits of fat, duck/goose butter keeps in the fridge for upwards of a year (far longer if frozen). It’s great for baking, frying potatoes, etc., and functions just like lard or bacon grease, but is far healthier.

The concept is simple: Trim or cut skin into small squares or similar shape and add to a skillet. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer. The contents will eventually turn slightly milky but once the liquid turns clear and is bubbling, you have duck/goose butter. Drain skillet contents through a sieve (with a paper towel or napkin inserted) into a bowl so you only have waterfowl butter in the end. For a video on this, Holly Heyser has a great tutorial on her YouTube Channel.

complete guide to processing waterfowl field to freezer
Don't forget to capture the liquid gold! (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

A Quick Brine Before Freezing

A simple brine of 1 gallon water and 1/2 cup kosher salt will help pull out residual blood. Blood is a terrible-tasting marinade and not something you want stored with your waterfowl. Yes, that blood freezes quickly, but when you’re thawing those birds, they will be marinating in that blood and that doesn’t make for good flavor. Simmer the water with salt until the salt is fully dissolved then cool the brine in the fridge and add waterfowl only once the brine is cool. Brine for three to four hours, then thoroughly rinse your waterfowl under cold water and pat-dry prior to freezing. Another function of a brine is to bind salt to muscle fibers to retain moisture while cooking, but it is my experience that effect is lost upon freezing, so it will make sense to brine again (and rinse) prior to cooking.

complete guide to processing waterfowl field to freezer
Follow the author's brine water recipe for outstanding results. (Photo By: Jack Hennessy)

We all enjoy a good hunt but don’t let your enjoyment of your waterfowl end in the field. Follow this step-by-step guide to ensure you are making the most of your meals.

Any questions or comments, please reach out on Instagram: @WildGameJack

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